TBT 12/10/19 – Leica M3 “Lucky 7” & Snap Balls

Front view of Leica M3

This week’s feature is a very early Leica M3, serial #777xxx, 6th German production batch, 2nd year of production: 1955. The “xxx” designation is a throwback to the days of magazine ads and mimeographed collectors’ newsletters. Leaving off the last 3 digits supposedly prevented the felonious from claiming your Leica was theirs—“that’s MY serial number!” In the world of internet and digital product photography, doesn’t hold much water. But old habits die hard.

When this lovely M3 came back from service, young Jeremy’s eyes widened and he started playing with it. “The film door is sticking, is it bent?” Didn’t make sense it would come back from our uber-talented Mystery Tech with a bent door, so I put on my obsessive-compulsive otaku goggles and examined the patient. Turns out there were two tiny little spring-loaded ball bearings, one each at the bottom outer edge of the door, that fit into two tiny recesses in the body. The door snapped shut, so gravity wouldn’t flip it open if you held the body lens mount up with the bottom plate removed. 
I’d never seen them before, and I’ve seen lotsa M3s, but also didn’t understand why they were necessary. Kinda cool/elegant, but the door flapping open when you’re loading film didn’t seem like a problem. And definitely not present on later bodies. Hmmmm…..
Leica Rep Rob visited soon after, and pulled out Volume 1 of Herr Doktor Professor James Lager’s 3-volume tome, and started flipping pages. “Oh, look, here they are—-‘Snap Balls.'” Early production runs only, soon dropped. Soon after Herr Doktor Professor Lager himself visited, to make 4×6 prints of birds, and he said: “Ah, yes, the Snap Balls.” Confirmed they were definitely a thing.

Back view of Leica M3

After we exchanged some totally immature, ribald banter about other uses for the phrase “Snap Balls,” as Rude Boys will do, Jim mentioned that those early M3s were marvels of construction. Techs would be elbow-deep in parts during an overhaul, and find some nook/cranny, deep in the bowels, perfectly polished. For no good engineering reason. Leica was proud of their work, and it showed. Like the Snap Balls, an elegant but time-intensive thing that was, as far as the photographic tool was concerned, unnecessary. 
Many of these niceties fell away as the ’50s progressed into the ’60s. More than 220,000 M3 bodies were produced from 1954-1966. HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS. Then less than 100k M2s (’58-’67), less than 60k M4s (’67-’75), and less than 30k M5s (’71-’75), which is when Leica Germany decided to kill the M series. As baroque German design lost ground to ruthless Japanese efficiency, those elegant touches necessarily fell away.

Techs also said that M3 overhauls involved lots of hand-filing and custom fitting of replacement parts. The brass drive gears gave the M3 smoothness, but couldn’t handle a motor winder, and wore faster than steel. The steel gears in later bodies were “better,” but those bodies were never as silky smooth as an M3. But they didn’t need service as often, and were quicker to overhaul.

You gain some, you lose some. I love how an M3 feels, and what it represents. I’m grateful I can slap a motor winder on an M6 or M7. I’m amazed one of the best digital cameras I’ve handled is an M10P. A lineage just a little bit older than me.

Our featured M3, with the Snap Balls, was paired with a collapsible 50mm Summicron, and has already found a new home. It was smooth, snappy and lovely, and sold for a ridiculously reasonably $1299.99. I’m sorry to say I neglected to photograph the Snap Balls, but you can get Volume 1 of Lager’s Leica: An Illustrated History  for only $225 and see them there. 

Leica MD-2 — Throwback Thursday

Leica MD-2 — Throwback Thursday

Post by Paul Brodek our Used Equipment buyer

Leica MD-2 camera front view

We’ve talked about all the benefits of classic M-series Leica rangefinder cameras, with direct, real-time viewing, no finder blackout and very accurate focusing being the most important. So why are we profiling the Leica MD-2, an M-series Leica with no viewfinder/rangefinder whatsoever? Well, one reason if we’ve just recently profiled the M5, which is the only other M-series film body in the showcase at the moment. But another reason is the MD-2 can be a very useful tool for street shooting with ultrawide lenses.

Leica MD-2 Back view


First, some background. The MD-2 is the third in a series of finderless M-series bodies, with the MD-2 based on the M4-2 chassis. It has the angled wind lever, angled rewind crank (instead of the M3 rewind knob), rectangular rewind lever, hinged back to aid film loading, film reminder scale on the back, etc. The MD series was originally designed primarily for scientific/copy work, with earlier versions available with a slotted baseplate to allow insertion of date/subject data to be recorded on the film, alongside the subject. These cameras are also easily adaptable to macro and long tele use with the Visoflex external reflex finder. 

Leica MD-2 Top view and Photo Gnome


So it made sense to have a “rangefinder” body with no viewfinder/rangefinder for these specialized uses, where external viewfinders eliminate the need for an in-body finder. But it’s also fairly easy to make the argument that SLRs are far superior tools for all these uses, since through-the-lens reflex viewing eliminates the need for external finders. Other than it be a cool, collectible object, why bother with one today.
How ’bout street shooting, where you might want to use a 12mm, 15mm, 18mm or 21mm ultra-wide lens, and shoot from the hip? You’re using hyperfocal focus settings and the ultrawide’s deep depth of field, so you’re not needing to focus. And you have a pretty good idea in your brain what the lens is taking in. You could also attach your ultrawide finder to the top of the camera to briefly check coverage and composition before snicking that very, very quiet shutter. No mirror flopping up and down, so fancy camera-looking device attracting attention. 
You could put a modern shoe-mount meter in the shoe if you don’t trust your sunny-16 chops, or even a vintage MR/MR-4 meter if you want to stay vintage.

Leica MD-2 camera, lens, lens hood and viewfinder


Our MD-2 body just came back from service, is in Exc+ condition, and is available for the low-low price of $599.99. We’re showing it with the outstanding Leica 16-18-21mm Wide-Angle Tri-Elmar, also known as the Leica WATE, and it’s multifocal finder, also known as the Frankenfinder. Available as a set for $3,499.99, the WATE is a phenomenal multifocal ultrawide that is not a zoom, no in-between settings usable. In addition to being incredibly sharp and contrasty on film, it excels with digital imaging, including/especially with those thick sensor stack, high pixel-count cameras that usually do very poorly with film-era ultrawides.

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